Touchstone figures to fire a blank into the box office till with “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag,” a clever premise that ends up being as bland as its put-upon title character. Director/co-writer Allan Moyle showed some flair with “Pump Up the Volume” and has his moments here, but not enough to rescue “Betty Lou” from a mundane existence in theaters and quick exile to homevideo suburbia. The pic opens today on a regional basis.
Penelope Ann Miller has the title role as Betty Lou Perkins, a mousy librarian who seizes on a found gun–used in the motel-room slaying of an FBI informant–to shake up her pristine image and
become a femme fatale. After all, Betty Lou’s cop husband (Eric Thal) ignores her, her boss pushes her around and her friends can’t picture her having an affair or shooting anyone. So why not use those library-honed storytelling skills to inject a little drama into her life and confess to the crime?
Her girl-who-cries-wolf plot has one deadly drawback, however, in the form of the sadistic mobster Beaudeen (William Forsythe) who fears Betty Lou possesses evidence that could convict him. After some gratuitous demonstrations of his hot temper, Beaudeen eventually nabs Betty Lou’s attorney (Alfre Woodard) to set up a climactic showdown.
The idea of one happenstance discovery changing someone’s life–and completely altering their public image–is a familiar one, but Moyle and writer Grace Cary Bickley don’t lay enough groundwork to make Betty Lou as sympathetic as she needs to be, and the 89-minute production still has time for profound lapses in reason.
The lead character also loses some of her attraction by allowing the deception to drag on after she’s clearly in over her head, causing her husband to lose his job and people around her to be placed in jeopardy.
The one area in which the film does excel resides in its occasionally sharp dialogue and supporting characters, with amusing moments from Woodard as the novice attorney, Julianne Moore as Betty Lou’s hyperkinetic sister and Cathy Moriarty as a helpful hooker. The reliable Forsythe also brings an uneasy sense of menace to his cajun-drawling heavy in limited screen time.
Miller finds herself properlycast again as the girl-next-door type, following her misuse as the high-powered attorney in “Other People’s Money” and an equally disastrous turn in the recent romantic caper “The Year of the Comet.” She’s back on more comfortable terrain–closer to roles in “Kindergarten Cop” and “Awakenings”–and it shows.
Thal, unrecognizable from his recent co-starring role in “A Stranger Among Us ,” is likable as well in the thinly written role as Betty Lou’s husband, though the film presents a somewhat schizophrenic mix of feminist sentiments with the idea that hubby’s approval–and his riding to the rescue–will make everything OK.
As with his last feature, Moyle saturates the film with music, but it makes less sense here, to the point where its hard not to be conscious of it. That score includes the song “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight,” although based on the pic’s limited appeal, she’ll likely be all dressed up with no place to go. Other tech credits are fine in the modestly scaled production.